There’s a lot of talk about bicycle jerks lately, and the stereotype is consistent: a Lycra-clad rider racing down the bike trail, upsetting families, causing accidents and indifferent to the needs of fellow cyclists. Bicycle jerks are out there, no doubt, but the solution is not to turn every cyclist into a slow-moving, casual rider wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
The world of bicycling has always had fast riders who look good in tight-fitting clothing — who pedal with an efficient, fluid motion and ride with a light touch and comfort that makes bike and rider blend together as if a single unit. And the history of bicycling is filled with stories of those riders being demonized for scaring horses, upsetting pedestrians and being the agents of Satan.
History is also filled with stories of those same riders drawing tens of thousands of spectators to bicycle races where fans admire their speed and skill. Being fast on a bike has always generated both reactions.
I admire fast riders. In my younger days, I was almost one of them. I raced bicycles, but not with the elite riders. I felt the exhilaration of flying down the road in a tight group of skilled riders. I embraced the challenge of a steep climb and the freedom that comes with riding 100 miles in a long afternoon. And I thoroughly enjoyed the company of fast riders. They spanned the range of jobs, incomes, families and generations and, unlike the stereotype, most were very mellow, laid-back guys. It’s hard to be uptight when your body is filled with the endorphin high of a good workout.
I hate bicycle jerks. So what is the difference? For many riders, it is location. A fast rider can travel consistently in the mid-20-miles-per-hour range. An average bike commuter will ride 12 to 14 mph, and a casual trail rider will top out under 10. A fast rider on a bike trail will be traveling more than twice as fast as a casual rider. That’s the source of the conflict. A fast rider on a bike trail is equivalent to a motorist zooming down a residential street at 45 miles per hour.
Fast riders don’t belong on bike trails, at least not when there are casual riders present. They belong on the road. That dangerous, unnerving 25 mph on the trail is slightly below the speed limit on roads. Ten riders speeding down the road two abreast take up about the same space as one car in the same lane. I notice the difference daily around Lake Harriet. Watching a pair of fast-moving, silky-smooth riders on Lake Harriet Parkway is like watching humans fly. Watching those same riders racing along the bike trail — dodging, weaving and hollering “ON YOUR LEFT” — is stomach-churning.
Speed and Lycra aren’t the problem. They are simply the uniform of skilled athletes. The problem arises when that speed is inconsistent with the speed of other riders on the trail, and when the fast rider is willfully unaware of his or her impact on those riders.
Doug Shidell, of Minneapolis, is the owner of Bikeverywhere and publisher of the Twin Cities Bike Map.